A painting of Chief Worumbo by Lisbon artist Frank Gross hangs on a wall across from the town’s parks and recreation department. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LISBON — In 1684, a handful of Native American leaders in Maine signed a deal that more or less handed over a large swath of territory that included land on both sides of the Androscoggin River from the sea to the upper falls.

One of the leaders, Warumbee, indicated his agreement by putting his mark on the paperwork, which looks a little like a thickly drawn N.

A colonist named Edward Tyng noted on the paperwork, now held by the Maine Historical Society, that “Warumbee ye Saggamore” freely delivered the accord to him in Falmouth on Casco Bay.

That is perhaps the one piece of truly solid evidence of the existence of a man commonly called Worumbo, who appears in a few colonial records with his name spelled haphazardly.

He lived and likely died in the late 1600s, never having a clue that someday he’d have everything from a clothing mill to a fishing lure named after him.

Lisbon’s town seal depicting “Chief Worumbo” wearing the war bonnet of a Native American chief on the Great Plains. Town of Lisbon

The town seal of Lisbon, which adorns the wall of its council chambers and the patches worn by firefighters, carries a rendering of a Native American man wearing a feathered war bonnet of the type that adorned leaders of Indian nations that lived in the Great Plains. Printed beneath the image are the words “Chief Worumbo.”

The town, incorporated in 1799, even uses the seal as its Facebook profile picture.

The reality is that “little is really known” about the man, as Rose D. Neally found when she scoured the records for a Lewiston Evening Journal story in 1937. Nobody knows what he looked like, when he was born, when he died or what he did most of his life.

Where facts are few, though, myths sometimes take root.

What put Worumbo in the limelight was the 1864 formation of a mill in Lisbon Falls named after him.

Why they did it is unclear.

Company executives once told the Lisbon Enterprise that Worumbo lived at something they called “the Little River Plantation” in the early 1800s and was known as “a wise, old Indian” who loved to fish and hunt along the river.

The Little River Plantation served as the home of the town’s first white settlers, Ezeliel and Samuel Thompson, who moved there in 1798, incorporating the town as Thompsonborough in 1799. Residents changed it to Lisbon later.

Worumbo had been dead for a century or more by the time the Thompsons showed up.

Even so, the mill executives called their company’s name appropriate.

“For didn’t Worumbo spin the most wonderful yarns of all?” the executives said, according to the Enterprise.

But that isn’t the most absurd take on Worumbo.

O MIGHTY CHIEF WORUMBO!

One of Lisbon’s most prominent figures, writer John Gould, at least three times provided an account in his columns for The Christian Science Monitor about what he once called a, “basic Indian legend of these parts.”

His pieces lay out a traditional tale about how Worumbo was “tricked to his death by wily settlers” in the early days of Lisbon.

In Gould’s account several decades ago, Worumbo was “miffed when the English settlers moved in so his braves made a war dance” before piling into “a big battle canoe.”

They came down the Sabattus River, he said, with plans to attack “the good and pious folks of the English village” established just below the falls.

Gould said the settlers “suspected Worumbo might try this so they effected a stratagem” to counter “this infamous act of perfidy.”

A patch for the Lisbon Fire Department that features the town seal with Worumbo’s image. Submitted photo

“They went some distance downstream from the village, climbed a tall pine, and made a platform in the crown which they covered with dirt,” Jones said. “Then, when night came, they lit a big fire on the platform and kept it burning in good shape” to disrupt Worumbo’s plan to land on a sand spit above the falls.

The chief saw the fire, Gould said, “and its distance and its height confused him. He thought it was the campfire of the settlement, you see, but it wasn’t. My goodness, no.”

“Before he could correct himself, his canoe was swept into the swift water at the cascade” and paddle as they could, “the warriors could not save themselves. The craft went over the falls and that was the end of Chief Worumbo,” Gould said.

The story is preposterous on its face given that the first settlers didn’t move into Lisbon until long after Worumbo had gone the way of all things. Moreover, any native who knew the area would unlikely be fooled by a misplaced light at a river feature as obvious and well-known as the falls.

Even so, the tale took hold in the imagination of the community.

Gould said in 1972 that the story still attracted children to go look at the swirling eddy for themselves “and ask the perennial question.”

“They must stamp a foot three times (to let Chief Worumbo know they are there) and then they must shout: ‘O Mighty Chief Worumbo! What are you doing down there?’ And it never failed. Up from the stream, confirming the ancient legend, Chief Worumbo always answers – nothing.”

WAR ALONG THE ANDROSCOGGIN

History provides only a smattering of facts about Worumbo.

First, though, it should be noted that surprisingly little is known about the natives who lived along the Androscoggin River when white settlers began arriving. They grew corn, fished and hunted, with a large community in what became Canton and a smaller one on Laurel Hill, part of today’s Auburn.

The first mention of Worumbo in the historical record is found in the deed dated July 21, 1684, between seven native leaders — “Warumbee, Darumkin, Wehikermett, Wedon, Dombegon, Neonongassett, and Nimbanewett” — who agreed to grant a fellow from Boston named Richard Wharton the right to their land from the mouth of the river to its upper falls.

The mark of Worumbo on a 1684 deed. Maine Historical Society

Part of the agreement, though, also said that nothing in it should be construed “to Deprive us the said Sagamores Successors or People from improving our Ancient Planting Grounds.”

Whatever Worumbo thought about the deal, he clearly had a different take on it than the colonists who began moving into territory that the natives considered their own.

Colonial records indicate that in 1688, natives with ties to Worumbo broke into John Royal’s home in a disputed area in North Yarmouth and swiped a keg of rum.

“Worombe, sachem of the Androscoggins, later complained that Royal had cheated them in trade, and thus took the rum to even the account,” according to a 1986 doctoral dissertation by Emerson W. Baker at The College of William & Mary in Virginia. The Indians later threatened some other settlers before retreating up the river.

About the same time, someone made a “Map of the Eastern Country” that’s now in the possession of the Maine Historical Society. It lists the known adult male Indian populations of each of Maine’s tribes at the time, including 24 Androscoggins, with their chief listed as “Wiarumbe.”

SAVAGERY ON THE ANDROSCOGGIN

As warfare grew between the settlers and natives, there is at least one mention of Worumbo’s presence during an attack in Wells.

But the most solid account in which he plays a role comes from Benjamin Church’s assault on a small native encampment atop Laurel Hill in what later became Auburn.

Church’s own report said that his men marched on Sept. 14, 1690, along the Androscoggin until they saw “two English and an Indian moving towards the fort” that housed Worumbo’s family and others.

His son, Thomas Church, later recorded that Worumbo was “the sachem of that fort” but not present that day.

Church’s men raced after the people they’d seen, rescuing the two setters. Church then spread his armed men between the woods and the fort to prevent “the escape of the enemy.”

“We were very wet, running through the river, but got up undiscovered to the fort till within gunshot,” Church said.

They found “few Indians” present, “but two men and a lad of about 18 years with some women and children.”

Five of them ran into the river, he said, and three or four of them were killed. The 18-year-old escaped to reach the larger native village at Canton Point upriver.

Church said that overall, “we killed six or seven and took 11” captives, leaving behind only “two old squaws” in the ruins of the fort to tell the story of what had transpired there.

An old advertisement for Worumbo coats. Kansas City Star

James Sullivan’s “History of the District of Maine” recorded that “the Savages, excepting the wives of the two sachems, and their children were knocked on the head and buried” by Church’s troops.

In Church’s account of his mission, he noted that he had captured “two children also of Welambee,” apparently the same man as Worumbo.

Thomas Church, who started his “History of Philip’s War” while his father was still alive, said that Worumbo’s wife and another wife of a native leader asked the colonel to, “spare them and their children’s lives; promising upon that condition, he should have all the captives that were taken, and in the Indians’ hands,” apparently about 80 of them.

It is not clear what ultimately happened to Worumbo’s wife and children.

What is known is that many of the native captives from Church’s campaign were sold into slavery.

The last appearance of Worumbo in the records is apparently mentioned that in 1692, he was among three native leaders teamed with a French military unit that raided York.

What happened to Worumbo after that is a mystery that’s unlikely to be resolved.

Some say he moved to Canada, as many Maine natives did. One legend said he had been buried at Songo Lock, part of an old canal in Naples, but Neally found “no foundation for such belief.”

Others say Worumbo may have stayed in the area, his family slowly melding into the community. At least one Lisbon resident, Sophrone Tracy, claimed years ago to be a descendant of the man, as an undated old story in the Lisbon Historical Society asserted.

The only sure thing is that Worumbo lived in a tumultuous time, on the fragile barrier between two clashing cultures, and died long before Europeans seized the woods and waters he once knew.

WORUMBO’S AFTERLIFE

Though Worumbo was never really a chief, never wore a war bonnet, may never have lived in what became Lisbon and almost certainly had little use for white settlers who had destroyed his home and kidnapped his wife and children, he somehow became a symbol for the town.

A Worumbo clothing token from the mill in Lisbon. Submitted photo

Long after the American Indian leader vanished from the pages of history, the founders of a new mill in Lisbon resurrected his name.

Incorporated in 1864, the new mill grew to become Lisbon’s biggest employer and its major landmark. And its prominence, mostly as a coat manufacturer, spread the name of Worumbo across the nation, though it had no connection to the actual man.

The mill, which went up in flames in 1987, is probably best known today for providing Maine author Stephen King with a job early in his career and serving as a prop in some of his work.

Between the great wars of the 20th century, a semi-professional baseball team in Lisbon played under the Worumbo Indians, sometimes shortened to the Worumbos. It must have been a good squad because one of its coaches nearly got hired as the manager of the Boston Red Sox in the 1940s.

But the name Worumbo also survives in lesser ways, from Worumbo Estates, a mobile home park in Lisbon, to a Chief Worumbo fishing fly. For at least 15 years, there was also a Chief Worumbo Race on the Androscoggin River, but it no longer takes place.

Worumbo also survives, of course, on the town seal and as a piece of popular lore.

There are many questions that surround him, yet all that can be said in response to them is that “Chief Worumbo always answers – nothing.”


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